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Using Real World Examples to Teach Sustainability

Concepts on this page were derived from faculty discussions and presentations at multiple InTeGrate workshops.

Engaging students in tackling real world problems can make sustainability issues more tangible and meaningful to students as they see the connections of course content to their everyday life. This approach can be used to stimulate critical thinking through questioning and discussion and can be used to demonstrate the uncertainty and complexity of problems. This approach demonstrates that oftentimes there is no perfect solution to a given problem, but in doing so, gets students thinking about solutions, rather than just focusing on problems.

Pedagogic guidance for teaching using real world examples

Multiple pedagogic strategies can be used to incorporate real examples into the classroom. These include teaching with case studies or with investigative cases, field experiences such as field labs or student research, and using local data to teach about issues. If you live in an area where it is difficult to teach using the local environment, such as urban areas, try using videos, news articles, online media sources, photos from past field trips, and discussion of previous experiences in consulting and research to engage students. The module on teaching urban students, from Pedagogy in Action provides information for creative and effective ways to teach in an urban setting and includes example activities. In addition, Teaching using socioscientific issues, from Pedagogy in Action, describes how controversial issues can be used as a starting point for students' investigation of real world problems.

Engaging Students

Real world problems are inherently engaging since they tend to be meaningful and applicable to students' lives, either directly or indirectly (e.g. through the media). If you're not sure where to begin, the tips below can get you started. These tips were compiled from small group discussions among workshop participants at the 2013 workshops: Engineering, Sustainability, and the Geosciences and Teaching Environmental Justice: Interdisciplinary Approaches.

Effective strategies for teaching using real world problems

Case Studies

Case studies provide a context-rich opportunity for students to learn about real problems and to think critically about potential solutions to these problems. For instance, case studies such as Yucca Mountain and La Conchita can be used to evaluate risks with respect to hazards. Instructors can guide student learning through peer reviewed papers, real data, and professional reports as well as media resources, including news articles and videos.

Field Experiences

Field experiences present an opportunity for students to apply classroom knowledge in solving concrete problems. Field experiences also offer students the opportunity to collect their own data which educates students about how data is collected and has the affective component of providing students with a sense of ownership for the project data. Data analysis and synthesis following field experiences can also help students with critical thinking, quantitative thinking, and presentation skills.

Field experiences can range in size and type, from a single class activity, multi-week or semester-long project, semester or year long independent project, or a class service learning project. Students can also get field experiences through internships that can both prepare them for the workforce or provide a seamless path to a job after graduation.

Example Activities

Related Links

Working with Local Data

Local data is likely applicable to students' daily life, and as such, can be a highly engaging pedagogic approach. Statewide, national, and international databases offer a plethora of data resources if you and your students are not able to collect data on your own due to time, equipment, or other limitations. Ideas for activities from participants at the 2013 Engineering, Sustainability, and the Geosciences workshop may help you get started:
Example Activities Related Links

Data Resources

Compiled by Engineering, Sustainability, and the Geosciences workshop participants.

Useful data and tools related to water:

Useful online tools on life cycle assessment:

  • Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (BEES), from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is an online tool that can be used to introduce the economic aspects of building materials
  • Sustainable Site Remediation (SURF)-monitor site remotely rather than driving out to a site
  • SiteWise - developed jointly by the Navy, Army Corps of Engineers, and Battelle, SiteWise is a publicly available tool for conducting a baseline environmental footprint of a remedial technology.


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